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U.S. military presence offers promise, possible problems for the Philippines New front in war on terrorism

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

MANILA, Philippines -- Deploying some 660 U.S. troops may help control the Muslim extremist group that has plagued the Philippines for a decade, but the escalating American involvement will test ties between Washington and one of its closest allies in Southeast Asia.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo welcomes the U.S. military buildup, saying it could help deliver a fatal blow to the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

But the military mission could also further inflame the country's Muslim minority and alienate some of the president's leftist supporters.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon that up to 250 U.S. troops were in the country and ''several hundred more'' would follow. A ''small number'' of the Americans were on the southern island of Basilan, an area where Philippine forces have been battling Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Philippine officials say the six-month joint exercise will total about 660 troops, including 160 U.S. Army Special Forces, and some will be allowed to work in the southern Philippines.

It will essentially be a new front in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, but a radically different mission from Afghanistan -- shifting to a heavily support-based role helping a friend rather than ousting an adversary, and coping with tropical jungle instead of snow and desert.

The aim is to help eradicate the Abu Sayyaf. But the group -- which now holds two Americans and a Filipino hostage -- has defied successive governments for 10 years in the jungle-covered mountains of the remote southern islands.

Abu Sayyaf has only about 800 fighters, but it's a loosely knit federation of gangs that can escape by melting into the jungles or dropping weapons and blending into the local populace.

The guerrillas don't fight head-on, meaning that wiping out Abu Sayyaf -- even with U.S. help -- would be a lengthy task. Even before the start of the six-month exercise, the Philippine government is saying it may be extended to a year. And that much time in the jungle -- making war on a guerrilla force -- is a daunting prospect for those who remember Vietnam.

The possibility of U.S. troops firing at a Filipino -- even a violent radical -- has sparked criticism from the Muslim minority, nationalists, the mainstream political opposition and left-wing groups that are traditionally anti-American.

But that doesn't trouble Arroyo -- at least for now.

''I will weather the criticisms because in the end, if we get the Abu Sayyaf, we would have been victorious,'' she said Wednesday.

Thousands of Filipino troops have been battling Abu Sayyaf on Jolo and Basilan islands since June, but with few victories. The rebels once escaped a tight military cordon and are better equipped after using tens of millions of dollars in ransoms to buy weapons and speedboats.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said most of the U.S. soldiers will arrive within a month and the two governments are still deciding exactly what the Americans can do in combat areas.

The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign combat troops on sovereign territory, but the government will let U.S. forces carry weapons into areas where the Abu Sayyaf operates to observe the Filipinos in combat. The Americans are only supposed to fire in self-defense.

Golez said fewer than 200 U.S. soldiers will be allowed into combat zones, split into groups of 12 for every 400 or so Filipinos. The Americans are to train Filipinos in night helicopter flying, psychological operations and intelligence work.

''It's going to be a light presence (in combat areas),'' Golez said.

While eradicating Abu Sayyaf would bolster the Philippines' economy and political stability, political opposition to U.S. help is growing in a country with a history of mass protest and toppling leaders.

''My worry is this: what if a Filipino farmer or even an Abu Sayyaf is killed by an American bullet fired by an American trooper?'' said opposition Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, a former general. ''What would be the reaction of nationalists?''

''If this is training assistance, fine,'' Biazon said. ''But don't do it in a combat zone.''

The United States military was a powerful force in the Philippines for nearly a century, beginning in 1898 when the U.S. Navy sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Spain ceded the islands to United States at the end of the Spanish-American War.

In 1935, the Philippines became a self-governing U.S. commonwealth, and the islands were the site of bloody World War II battles with Japan. The Philippines gained independence in 1946 and granted the United States control of about 20 military installations. But a nationalistic Philippine Senate refused in 1991 to extend the lease on the Subic Bay naval base, and the Navy abandoned the installation -- by that time its last in the Philippines -- in 1992.

Now, many fear a possible Muslim backlash against a renewed U.S. presence. Resentment of the United States is also growing among some of the leftist groups that helped bring Arroyo to power last Jan. 20.

With the one-year anniversary looming Sunday, leftist groups have promised to step up protests against Arroyo and the military exercises.



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